Sunday, October 23, 2011

Folklore and Pop Culture (again!) Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Count Dracula, Transylvania, Sesame Street and Cereal

I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting.
Bram Stoker, Dracula, Chapter 1

Today's post is about Count Dracula and some pop culture related to him.

The character that Count Dracula was based on was Vlad Tepes, a nobleman who lived in Wallachia (present day southern Romania) during the 15th century. His favorite way of disposing of his enemies was impaling them on stakes. He had one hell of a reputation, even the Ottoman Empire functionaries, who ruled the Balkan lands in those days were terrified of him. I wonder why....

Let's fast forward 400 years to Ireland, the homeland of Bram Stoker. Stoker was a writer fascinated by Eastern European folklore. He read Emily Gerard's travel book The Land Beyond the Forest (the Latin name for Transylvania). It was from this book that he found information about the folkways of that part of the world, including legends about vampires. The peasants of the region were quite superstitious and had a fear of the creatures that wandered in the night.

Stoker was so fascinated by the vampires (nosferatu) in Gerard's book that he created a novel that took place in Transylvania. In the novel, Count Dracula is an undead creature who feeds on the blood of unsuspecting victims, creating more of them in the process. Part of the idea must have had something to do with the evil reputation of Vlad the Impaler.

Dracula is a popular book even now, and there are many references to it in popular culture as you will see later.

The castle of Vlad Tepes (Dracula) is an important Romanian national treasure, located in Transylvania, in the northwestern part of the country. It was one of Vlad's temporary residences. Here is some background and video about the castle.

Transylvania, back in the old days, was a part of the great Austro-Hungarian empire. To this day there is a large minority of ethnic Hungarians who live there. This region was given back to Romania after the first World War.

The next video is a folk dance from Transylvania, with a mixture of both Romanian and Hungarian influences. There was a lot of cultural-cross pollination in this part of the world. If you watch closely, you'll see lots of stamping, which is typical of Romanian dances, mixed in with a Hungarian csardas, a couple dance with lots of turning.

Now it's time for Count Dracula in popular culture.

First, there's the 1931 movie. Bela Lugosi was a natural for the role because of his looks and that strong Hungarian accent.

Your kids will certainly recognize this guy, he's the Count on Sesame Street. He even sounds a little like Bela Lugosi!

There is also a cereal, Count Chocula, with 100% of your children's daily requirement of sugar, artificial colors and artificial flavors. It is guaranteed to turn them into monsters. I remember eating it as a kid; I picked out the marshmallows and ate them before eating the cereal. And as for the sugar, it made me want to dance all day and night.

I prefer this kind of cereal...oops, I meant Siriul. This is a folk dance from Romania, and is not a favorite of serial killers, at least not the ones I know :) I don't think Vlad Tepes was the dancing type.

If you enjoyed this you may also like Bulgarian Folklore and Pop Culture.

And you may want to try some Dancing by the Numbers.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Leb i Vino: Traditional Music from the Pirin Region of Bulgaria

Interested in some very unusual and primitive folk music? Look no further. If you like odd rhythms, hypnotic drumming, super-loud bagpipes, dissonant harmonies and musical instruments that you've never heard of, such as the kemene, zurna, and tarambuka, this stuff is for you.

The group Leb i Vino (Bread and Wine in English) specializes in authentic Bulgarian folklore, which includes singing, dancing, playing handcrafted musical instruments, and the creation of traditional artworks. In this video, the dancers are accompanied by a zurna (a double reed horn often used in Middle Eastern music) and a tupan (large double headed drum). These instruments are the legacy of the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria, which lasted about 500 years.

Bulgaria has six folklore regions. The music of each has a distinct character. Leb i Vino specializes in music from the Pirin, the area of southwestern Bulgaria, which shares a border with the country of Macedonia. Music and dance often cross borders, and sometimes it's hard to distinguish between music from the Pirin and music from the Republic of Macedonia. This has been the subject of a lot of contention on YouTube. I personally don't care about ethnic rivalry, which has no place on this blog. The important thing is the creativity of the artists, and the beauty of the music, which transcends national borders. The little kids in folk dress are really cute, and the food pictures will make you hungry :)

Songs in the Pirin are often accompanied by a tambura. It's a member of the lute family and it's strummed with the fingers. The woman plays a tarambuka, a small drum that looks like a large goblet.

The kemene resembles another Bulgarian folk instrument, the gadulka. The gadulka is so named because it makes a buzzing sound, and is a string instrument played with a bow.

The tarambuka and the kemene create a very hypnotic combination in the next piece, and they are accompanied later by a kaval, which is an open-ended flute.

There are three distinct rhythm changes, which correspond to the following Bulgarian dances: lesnoto (pineapple-apple-apple), rachenitsa at 3:18 (apple-apple-pineapple) and devetorka at 5:10 (a kaval player joins in during the devetorka.) All three are in odd time signatures, 7/8 and 9/8 respectively, for you music theorists out there.

You can read about the group Leb i Vino on their website:

If you enjoyed this, you may also like How Bulgarian Music Induces Altered States:

For more on the different folklore regions of Bulgaria and some information on the country's national dance, the rachenitsa, read:

Since my last post was about food, and I've gotten a few requests for recipes, click the next link for some traditional Bulgarian bread recipes. You can enjoy them with some of your favorite wine while listening to Leb i Vino. Don't forget to spread some lyutenitsa on that bread. Delicious!

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Blog Action Day 2011: A Look at Peppers in Bulgarian Food and Folk Songs

(Pepper plant photo by KDB; Shopska Salad from Wikipedia Commons)

Here's the link to the 2011 Blog Action Day webpage:

In keeping with Blog Action Day, today's post will be about food. Since food is such a general subject I decided to focus on that multinational and multicultural staple, Capsicum, otherwise known as the pepper. They come in many varieties from the sweet bell pepper, the somewhat hotter jalapeño, and then there's the hottest pepper in the world, the ghost chili. Capsaicin is the chemical in hot peppers that makes them spicy. It has medicinal qualities and can be used to treat minor aches and pains. Ironically it's also the same substance that fires up your mouth when you eat a hot pepper.

Peppers are used in a wide variety of cuisines, such as Latin American, Italian, Chinese,and Eastern European. They add flavor and sometimes heat, depending on the type. The milder ones are used in salads, and the hot ones as a garnish, or an ingredient. They are very nutritious. Peppers have Vitamin C and beta carotene, and are a good source of dietary fiber. Did I forget to mention they also taste good?

Bulgarians are quite fond of peppers. They are eaten raw in salads, or stuffed with rice, vegetables and cheese and baked.

One of the key ingredients in the Shopska Salad is red sweet peppers (either raw or roasted). Shopska Salad is very easy to prepare, and the ingredients can be found in any supermarket: sweet red peppers, tomatoes, white brined cheese (similar to the Greek Feta), onions, cucumbers and parsley, mixed with sunflower oil and vinegar. The colors in the Shopska salad are also the colors of the Bulgarian flag.

There is also a relish made from hot peppers, Lyutenitsa, which is usually spread on bread. It is a traditional Bulgarian staple; pepper concoctions similar to this are very popular all over the Balkans, and known under different names with slightly different recipes. There is Serbian ajvar, Romanian Zacuscă, and Turkish Biber salçası.

You can find the recipe for Lyutenitsa here:

Peppers, sweet and hot, are very important in Bulgarian culture, and also in their folk music. Here are some pepper songs from the Universe of YouTube. Although some people in the United States have never heard of Bulgaria (and probably think it's a planet in outer space), Bulgarian traditional music is quite popular among folk dancers in this country (and around the world).

The first song, Dilmano Dilbero, is a lighthearted ditty about a girl planting peppers.

There is a phenomenal group from the Washington, DC area who performs Bulgarian folk music. The name of the band is Lyuti Chushki, which translates to hot peppers in English and their music is quite spicy, kick it up a notch! At the end of the video you can hear their signature song, which is, of course, about hot peppers!

Here is some more music from Lyuti Chushki along with a link to their website.

If you enjoyed this you may also like Folklore, Food and Fun at Festivals:

A cross-cultural post on butchers' dances can be found here:

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Dancing by the Numbers

Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting. ~Gottfried Leibniz

People in the Balkans seem to have an obsession with numbers, which is probably why they're so good at math. They are good at dancing as well, after all it's just a matter of counting.

Today's post is about dances named after numbers. The first one, from Serbia, is the Five Figure Cacak. If you watch carefully, you'll notice a three-two-one pattern very common to Serbian dances. There are five different sequences (figures) and each one is repeated. Twice.

Chetvorno is a dance connected with the number four, which is четири,(chetiri) in Bulgarian. In Cyrillic, the "ch" resembles a 4.

If you are looking for the children's game "Connect Four", you'll find it here :)

Trite Puti, another dance from Bulgaria, translates to "three times." Three times what? Despite the fact that math was not my favorite subject, I like this dance very much. Three happens to be one of my lucky numbers. In numerology, three is the number of artistic talent, creativity, and a way with words. In astrology it corresponds to the sign Gemini. Yes, I know Gemini is the sign of the twins, but it's also the third sign of the zodiac. (I think the guy commenting in the next video must be a Gemini....he's a bit on the chatty side. Just ignore him and his running commentary...he's a distraction. Watch the dancers instead.)

The third time is a charm. Here is another dance with the number three, which must be a lucky number in the Balkan world. The dance Trei Pazeste is from Romania.  They are even dancing in groups of three!  The shouts are characteristic of Romanian dances, they are called strigaturi.

By the way, the most famous vampire in the world, Count Dracula, was based on an actual person, the Romanian nobleman, Vlad Tepes. I mention this bit of trivia because it's October, and Halloween falls on the very last day of the month. This holiday is a big deal in the States. After dark on Halloween, children (accompanied by adults) traipse from house to house, and some of them dress as vampires. Scary costumes are the norm on Halloween; it is the holiday of ghosts, ghouls, monsters and vampires. The purpose of this activity is to acquire as much free candy as possible. The adults come home exhausted after making the rounds of the neighborhood; the children get a burst of energy from a sugar overdose.

Dracula (Romanian for devil) was quite the character and his favorite method of putting people to death was impaling them on wooden stakes. According to some estimates, he may have killed up to 100,000 people in this manner.

You can see a more benign version of the Count on the children's show Sesame Street.

If you enjoyed this, you may also like Balkan Folk Dancing and its Relationship to... Math?

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Monday, October 3, 2011

The River of Many Names Part 3: Folk Ensembles and Performing Groups with the name "Dunav"

Rivers are roads which move, and which carry us whither we desire to go. ~Blaise Pascal

Today's post is a another Close Encounter of the Danubian Kind. You get to visit different countries by way of music, enjoy some beautiful scenery and watch some fantastic folk dancing from Bulgaria.

During my forays in the Universe of YouTube I have found several groups that play, sing or dance to Balkan music. They all have one thing in common, the name "Dunav," which is Bulgarian/Serbian for Danube.

This river has been an inspiration for many artists, musicians and poets, from Germany all the way to Romania, but the Bulgarians seem have been the most smitten by the river that forms their northern border with Romania.

The ensemble Dunav, from Vidin in Bulgaria, is an example of Bulgarian artistry inspired by the River of Many Names. The beginning of this video is especially worth watching. Notice that the man shakes his head from side to side after seeing the images in the water. Are they a figment of his imagination? The dancers are amazing, and so is the scenery, the ship in the background, however, is a distraction. But, then, that's minor.

If you are a regular reader of The Alien Diaries, you have seen these people before. Their teaching videos are all over YouTube, and their specialty is dances from the Balkans and the Middle East. Dunav, a group from Jerusalem, Israel, describes their website as "the sharing place for Balkan music and dance." Check out their link:

Here they perform Talima, from Dobrudja, the northeast region of Bulgaria which just happens to be along the River of Many Names.

In the States, folklore and culture are often found at church festivals. These events are held during the summer at Eastern Orthodox churches located in large cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Many immigrants from Eastern Europe settled there because they were able to find work in the factories and in the steel mills. They wanted to keep the traditions alive for the next generation; the church had a hand in this by sponsoring classes in traditional music, dance, and the language of the old country. In turn, the festivals raised money for the church. The greater community benefits by being exposed to a foreign culture. I've been to Greek, Serbian, Albanian, Romanian, and Bulgarian festivals, to me it's like visiting another country without leaving my own.

The Dunav Orchestra performs at a Serbian festival in Indiana. This, to me, sounds like Croatian tamburitza music. The country doesn't matter, it's a pleasure to listen to.

The last "Dunav" group is from London. This performance, from their trip to Romania in 1993, is of a lively Romanian folk song.

If you enjoyed this post, you will also like The River of Many Names (parts one and two). Part one is a musical journey.

Part two has songs and dances from Bulgaria related to the Danube:

For more on ethnic festivals, read:

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